The lower metres of the year

The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,—

The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,—
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I love this one. And not just because of the bees. Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active. Not visibly, anyway. They are clustered in their hives in cold weather, keeping each other warm with their little bee bodies. While the cold must be stressful, worker bees in winter can live for several months. During the height of a honeyflow in summer, a worker’s lifespan is measured in weeks. So while the cold is a danger, winter is also a time of rest for bees. But I digress. Dickinson says that while the bees’ murmuring has ended, for now, another has started. I tend to think that she’s referring here not to an actual sound, but to the signs of winter itself.

In the second stanza, she continues her expansion from the specific to a bigger, more philosophical idea. In this envisioning of the year, June is the beginning, the Genesis–and why not? After all, it’s totally arbitrary to start the new year in January. The ancient Celts began their new year with Samhain and celebrations of the harvest. You can start the new year anywhere in the circle of the year, really.

So winter, for Dickinson, is “the lower metres of the year.” Nature is done laughing, finished with explosions of vegetation and animal life. It is time for rest, time to withdraw into the hive, to come together for warmth, to while away the coldest, darkest part of the year in communion with ourselves and one another.

Immortal copy

BELSHAZZAR had a letter,—
He never had but one;
Belshazzar’s correspondent
Concluded and begun

In that immortal copy 5
The conscience of us all
Can read without its glasses
On revelation’s wall.

~Emily Dickinson

I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to say about this one. Ironically–or fittingly?–the internet keeps cutting out here. My words are liable to be sparse and cryptic.

Belshazzar’s “letter,” in the Bible, is the source of the phrase, “the writing on the wall.” Mysterious writing appears on a wall during the king’s feast, and the prophet Daniel interprets it as a sign of doom should the king not do as his predecessor did and turn to God. Belshazzar rewards Daniel but apparently does nothing else, and that night dies, losing control of his kingdom to outside forces.

I’ve avoided this poem for a long time because I didn’t know quite what to make of it, but I think maybe I’ve been overthinking it. Belshazzar received word that he needed to change. We all get these messages, loud and clear, whether from invisible divine hands or other more prosaic sources. They’re glaringly obvious, to our consciences, at least. What we do with them is up to us.

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt, via Wikipedia.

The poet in conversation with…herself?

If the foolish call them “flowers”,
Need the wiser tell?
If the savants “classify” them,
It is just as well!

Those who read the Revelations
Must not criticise
Those who read the same edition
With beclouded eyes!

Could we stand with that old Moses
Canaan denied,—
Scan, like him, the stately landscape
On the other side,—

Doubtless we should deem superfluous Many sciences
Not pursued by learned angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies,
At that grand “Right hand”!

~Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

~Emily Dickinson

The second of these poems was our March 14 choice. You can read that short and snarky post here. When I read today’s poem, the first of the two, it immediately reminded me of the second one. It’s interesting to find two of Dickinson’s poems that seem to approach the same subject from two very different viewpoints. I don’t think they’re irreconcilable, but I couldn’t resist putting them side by side for comparison. What do you think?


IT makes no difference abroad,
The seasons fit the same,
The mornings blossom into noons,
And split their pods of flame.

Wild-flowers kindle in the woods,
The brooks brag all the day;
No blackbird bates his jargoning
For passing Calvary.

Auto-da-fé and judgment
Are nothing to the bee;
His separation from his rose
To him seems misery.

~Emily Dickinson

I had to look up “auto-da-fé,” and wow. Basically, it’s an allusion to the Inquisition. You can read a definition here.

That one word crystallizes the meaning of the poem. Dickinson is comparing the eternal cycles of nature to the most extreme that humanity has to offer–Calvary, the Inquisition–and concluding that really, none of that human stuff matters to nature. Our doings, which seem so momentous to us, are nothing to nature. Our beliefs, religions, dogmas, don’t matter beyond ourselves.

On one hand, it’s a terrifying thought–everything we get so riled up about doesn’t really matter in the end, or at least doesn’t matter beyond ourselves. On the other hand, it’s comforting–perhaps a little bit of much-needed perspective. The world will go on without us.

Take your power in your hand!

I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
’T was not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.

I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?

~Emily dickinson

Pam: April is making me feel like the speaker in this poem.

Brenna: SAME. April is already kicking my tail and it’s only ten days old.

Pam: Trying to do big things, being thwarted because in the end, I am too small. Remember when we thought March would be better than February??

Brenna: We were so young and innocent….

Pam: It makes me wonder if I’ll look as these months as Goliaths later in life.

Brenna: They feel like Goliaths to me now. But maybe the actual Goliath is lurking around the corner. That’s a depressing thought.

Pam: No no no, we’re only looking at current Goliaths!

Brenna: Ok, good! So. What are we to make of this poem? Is it a cautionary tale? I know it ends with her failure, but I’m kind of in love with those first couple lines. I want to take my power in my hand. That sounds like some serious magical badassery.

Pam: I think we can look at it two ways. Sure, it’s a failure. But do you stop at failure? Why write the poem, then? Maybe the speaker is trying to dissect this failure so that next time, they’ll have a different result.

Brenna: Ah, I like that! Why tell the tale of your failure if not for some greater purpose?

Pam: It’s too bold in the beginning for me to think that this is just about failure. Somebody who is taking power in their hand is not going to give up. Or at least, that’s my hope.

Brenna: So maybe she’s encouraging us. Even someone as small as herself (there’s Lil’ Emily again….) can defy a giant, so we can too!

Pam: Why is she always diminutive, do you think?

Brenna: It strikes me as a little weird. Did women value being small back then? I thought the ideal was statuesque. Is she being purposefully different? Going against the grain? Or highlighting how small she feels?

Pam: It seems like the kind of petty thing I would do if someone called me small. “You think I’m small? I’ll show you what small can do!” You knew this was coming, but the rhymes in this poem are interesting!

Brenna: Tell me more!

Pam: They’re close, but a little bit slanty, in stanza one. Hand/had, world/bold. And then stanza two blows it up a little bit! fell/small, sure. It’s slant, but it works. But myself/large? In no way does this even begin to rhyme! Is this meant to show us how very large she is not? The rhyme in that stanza is disjointed, and I’m wondering what, if anything, it has to tell us.

Brenna: She is feeling disjointed/small in comparison to the world?

Pam: Her rhyme is tighter when she’s about to act. She’s gathering power, slinging it. The rhyme comes undone after, when she’s lost

Brenna: Ooooh, that’s good! Yes! Just like the slingshot!

Pam: Yes! We are on it today. This is what I love about poetry. Everybody brings life experience to the table, and you can still choose to not accept the poem at face value. We choose to read this poem not about failure, but about talking yourself up for another try!